Early in Tom Stoppard's comedy Rough Crossing, a character refers to the Irish policeman named Murphy who makes an entrance at the beginning of The Merchant of Venice. Don't remember Murphy? You're not alone. Never heard of Rough Crossing? You're also in good company. The 1984 play by the coauthor of the Oscar-winning screenplay for Shakespeare in Love is a minor work, one that would hardly attract the droves pouring into the Coconut Grove Playhouse if it didn't star Jack Klugman and Tony Randall.
As for Murphy, he's not a Shakespearean character, of course, but an invention found in The Cruise of the Dodo, the play within this play. And the writing of this play is the premise of Rough Crossing. Two long-time theatrical collaborators, Sandor Turai (Randall) and Alex Gal (Paxton Whitehead) are desperately trying to write a final act as they sail across the Atlantic in 1936, en route to New York, where Dodo is scheduled to open on Broadway in four days. Oh, and the ride is made additionally rough by the complicated lives of fellow travelers.
Among them are Natasha Navratilova (Alison Fraser), the leading lady in The Cruise of the Dodo, and Ivor Fish (David Staller), her costar and onetime lover, who is still enamored of her. Attending the two playwrights and their cast is Dvornichek (Jack Klugman), an inept lush of a cabin steward who was recently fired from a job at a hotel. As the ship sets sail, Dvornichek is still ignorant of nautical traditions and vocabulary. "You wouldn't believe the cellar in this place," he says to one of the passengers.
Also onboard is Adam Adam (Gibson Frazier), Dodo's composer and Navratilova's new love. Adam has boarded earlier than planned in order to surprise Navratilova. And surprise her he does, apparently in the arms of Fish. When Adam overhears a love scene between Navratilova and Fish, he threatens to throw himself overboard in despair. In response the two playwrights labor to find a way to keep the composer, without whom, of course, the show cannot go on, from killing himself. I won't reveal the ridiculous scheme the two concoct to prevent Adam's departure, but suffice it to say that it is practically ingenious.
Not quite as ingenious, though, as the machinations that drive, say, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Stoppard's 1967 work that marvelously filled in a missing gap in the action of Hamlet. Or Arcadia, his effervescent 1993 play in which calculus, love, and landscape architecture intersect across two centuries. With Rough Crossing Stoppard again puts his wit to work to celebrate the talents of playwrights, who also figure in his better scripts, from The Real Thing to Shakespeare in Love.
Rough Crossing might be described as a valentine to George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, whose celebrated Thirties confections You Can't Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner revolve around zany premises, Rube Goldberg-esque plot developments, and inventive dialogue. In one priceless sequence in Rough Crossing, Gal complains about the comings and goings of the other passengers on deck in a manner that sends up the conventional method of introducing onstage characters to an audience:
"A chap comes in. Who is he? We don't know. Then another chap comes in. They introduce a woman. Who is she? We don't know. They know and they won't tell us."
This is a postmodern riff that Kaufman and Hart would have loved. Delivered in charming deadpan fashion by veteran Whitehead, the scene is just one of the seemingly tossed-off but indelibly funny moments of the show. With high jinks like this, it shouldn't surprise you to learn that the song that closes the first act is an Adam Adam creation: "Where Do We Go from Here?" Stoppard, as we all know by now, has never had trouble being clever, and he's certainly up to screwball comedy.
Of course the difference between a Kaufman and Hart play and this Stoppard homage is that you actually root for the besieged family in The Man Who Came to Dinner, for example, praying that they'll somehow be able to roust their obnoxious houseguest. In Rough Crossing, as with so many other Stoppard works, there's so little at stake emotionally we are left only to marvel at the playwright's verbal genius. In a play like Travesties or The Real Thing, Stoppard's writing is so brilliant it distracts us from noticing that there's not much underneath. (Shakespeare in Love is the rare Stoppard work with genuine emotional ballast.)
What's left, then, is a marvelous piece of fluff replete with jokes ranging from allusions to Ferenc Molnar (from whose 1924 comedy Play at the Castle this work is adapted) to a running gag in which Turai's drink order is continuously shanghaied by steward Dvornichek. The play also gets a lot of laughs from Navratilova and Fish as they rehearse The Cruise of the Dodo. My favorite bit of dialogue is the line that a character in Dodo uses to explain how he became an international jewel thief, remarking that he started as a village jewel thief, "then regional, then national, then international."
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Judging by the names on the Playhouse marquee, the draw of the show would be Jack Klugman and Tony Randall, stars of TV's The Odd Couple, reunited again in Coconut Grove after charming audiences last season in The Sunshine Boys. Klugman conquered throat cancer, but it left him with a permanent growl, which he uses to good effect. Randall is on break from artistic-director duties at his acclaimed National Actors Theater (now presenting Matthew Broderick in Night Must Fall). Both these stars are crowd pleasers, appealing to watch, and expert performers, though neither can be accused of brilliance. I'm not sure brilliance is what audiences expect from them anyway. As long as they continue to deliver the chemistry they shared as Oscar Madison and Felix Unger, will anyone even care that they are not challenging themselves?
For my money the real treat in the production (directed by Whitehead, the long-time artistic guru of Canada's Shaw Festival) is the rest of the cast, all consummate pros, particularly Alison Fraser and David Staller as the pixilated stars of The Cruise of the Dodo. Both Broadway thoroughbreds are delightful to watch. The same goes for Gibson Frazier, who plays Adam Adam. Because of one plot twist, Frazier's character is struck by a bad case of stuttering and the actor performs much of the role with facial expression rather than dialogue. He manages to convey emotions for which there are indeed no words.
James Noone's delicious set, with its elaborately furnished deep blue-and-purple ship decks and staterooms, and Kirk Bookman's lighting deserve as much attention as the stars. Noel Taylor's costumes are simply elegant. Director Whitehead seems to have the most fun, however, whether he's orchestrating a pantomime conversation for Adam and Navratilova (in which Navratilova responds in words to musical measures that Adam plays on the piano) or playing Gal, wrinkling his own brow in the manner of a dimwitted schoolboy. Klugman and Randall may be selling the tickets for this show, but it's Whitehead who kept me in my seat.
Written by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Paxton Whitehead. With Tony Randall, Jack Klugman, Paxton Whitehead, Alison Fraser, Gibson Frazier, and David Staller. Through May 23. Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy, Coconut Grove; 305-442-4000.